KHARTOUM // Sudan's president said yesterday he accepted a southern vote for independence in a referendum that is set to create Africa's newest state and open up a fresh period of uncertainty in the increasingly volatile region.
Final results from the plebiscite released yesterday showed 98.83 per cent of voters from Sudan's oil-producing south chose to separate from the north. Sudan is now expected to split in two on July 9.
"Today we received these results and we accept and welcome these results because they represent the will of the southern people," Omar al Bashir said in an address on state television.
Mr al Bashir earlier told supporters he knew the vote was for secession.
The referendum is the climax of a 2005 north-south peace deal that set out to end Africa's longest civil war, reunite the divided country and instil democracy in a land that straddles the continent's Arab-sub Saharan divide.
Mr al Bashir's comments allayed fears that the split could reignite conflict over the control of the south's oil reserves.
Both sides did avoid major outbreaks of violence over the past five years.
But they failed to overcome decades of deep mutual distrust to persuade southerners to embrace unity.
Hundreds of people started gathering in the blistering heat of the southern capital Juba yesterday to celebrate the official results.
"Today I don't fear war anymore, it is the past … Our leaders have made friends with the north, but for me, I can never forgive them for what I have seen. I don't hate them now, but I never want to see them again," said Riak Maker, 29, as men drummed and women ululated around him.
Many southerners see the vote as a chance to end years of northern repression, which they say stretches back through almost 50 years of civil wars to 19th century raids by slave traders.
Mr al Bashir, who campaigned for unity, has surprised many commentators with a series of conciliatory remarks about the south in recent weeks.
Washington has signalled it is ready to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism after a successful referendum, and help in easing crippling trade sanctions.
The West's hands may be tied by the continuing global uproar over Sudan's separate Darfur conflict. Mr al Bashir is still living under the threat of arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court over charges he orchestrated genocide in Darfur.
Deep uncertainties remain over the economic and political stability of both territories over the next five months of intense negotiations over how to share their oil revenues and other unresolved issues.
Landlocked south Sudan is almost entirely dependent on oil revenues and has struggled to find other sources of income to support its economy, weighed down by the huge costs of its army and civil service wage bills.
The north is mired in its own economic crisis, marked by soaring inflation. A series of small street protests, part inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and neighbouring Egypt, has increased political pressure on Khartoum, as has the prospect of losing the south, seen as a matter of shame to some northerners.
The challenges were underlined over the weekend when soldiers in the southern town of Malakal mutinied, killing at least 50 people, after refusing to redeploy north with their weapons as part of preparations for the split.
Malakal was a key battle ground in the north-south civil war that killed two million people and destabilised the whole region, flooding it with refugees.
Other burning issues include the division of Sudan's crippling debt, the position of the north-south border, the ownership of the contested oil-producing Abyei region and the regionally divisive share out of water from the Nile.